Within the first hour of playing Mortal Shell, I battled some aggressive campers, spoke with a giant frog, met a strange “sester,” got caught in a bear trap, saw a scary-looking, plague doctor-esque bird monster, and I ended up becoming “best friends forever” with an NPC who plays the lute.
The character told me about living the bandit’s life, and I was treated to a cutscene showing the desolate Fallgrim region and some brigands (those aggressive campers) being surrounded by fiendish creatures. Then, I was suddenly jolted when the end credits popped up. Yes, I think I just saw Mortal Shell‘s “joke ending.” Within that first hour, I was already hooked.
Mortal Shell‘s story is something that did make me zone out. If you’ve played the Dark Souls titles or any other Souls-like, you’ll know that every NPC is bizarre, strange, or talking in cryptic riddles. Developer Cold Symmetry didn’t change how the narrative is presented in a subgenre that’s known for smatterings of clues and inscriptions that vaguely resemble a plot.
Basically, your character, the Foundling, is (probably) stuck in limbo and he wishes to “ascend.” There’s an air of mystery surrounding this land, and you’ll need to survive to uncover its secrets. The story, simply put, isn’t the game’s core strength. Where it succeeds, however, is the action.
Mortal Shells of the fallen
Mortal Shell eschews the traditional RPG progression of stats and builds. Instead, it gives you pre-determined “classes.” Now, these classes aren’t just menu selections. They’re the titular “shells” or empty armor pieces left behind by fallen champions. Each shell, named after its previous owner, has unique abilities, perks, stat lines, and specializations.
A shell called Tiel the Acolyte (which looks like an assassin’s attire) has ridiculously high stamina for dodging and sprinting, but it has very low HP. Conversely, Eredrim the Venerable (an armor set that makes you look like a Bretonnian knight from Warhammer Fantasy Battles), provides a huge health pool, though the Foundling will probably be exhausted after you do a single dodge roll. The third shell specializes in the “Hardening” mechanic and the last one focuses on resolve abilities (more on these concepts later).
The resources you earn let you acquire new perks for your favorite shell, turning it into a powerhouse. It’s a refreshing take on the usual Souls-like progression system. It’s streamlined which means less room for error (i.e., poor stat allocations) and you simply need to focus on the action at hand. In a way, it makes this subgenre, known for egregious difficulty, more accessible to newcomers.
James Harden with the block
Mortal Shell does follow a combat system that many Souls veterans would be familiar with. You’ve got hard-hitting, bone-crunching melee combat, unbelievably deadly foes, perfectly-timed dodge rolls for those sweet iFrames, and high-risk, high-reward parrying. Still, Cold Symmetry decided to put a refreshing spin on things via the “Hardening” mechanic.
Hardening in Mortal Shell doesn’t mean you’re going to grow a majestic beard and play for the Houston Rockets. Instead, your shell turns to stone, making you impervious to the next damaging attack that hits you (which breaks the effect) — think of it as “flashy blocking.” The differences are that Hardening has a short cooldown, it costs no stamina at all, and you can hold down the button for it indefinitely until you actually get hit.
You could mix it up as part of your offensive or defensive strategies. Struck the enemy twice, dodged, and now you’re low on stamina? Go turn to stone before you get stabbed. Went for a combo and realized that the enemy could counter? Harden in the middle of your attack animation so your mistake isn’t punished severely. Rolled away from a mob and fell off a ledge? Become a statue, nullify fall damage, and smash any hapless creature down below. There’s even a related feature where the first time you die causes your character to get knocked out of its shell and enemies are petrified for a few seconds. You’ll need to run back to your shell to regain full health, essentially making this your “second chance.” Of course, if you die, you’ll return to your last savepoint/bonfire (an NPC called Sester Genessa).
Slash ’em up
The Hardening mechanic in Mortal Shell already makes combat feel invigorating, though other concepts also help keep you on your toes. For instance, your character’s “resolve” lets you use an “enhanced riposte” and weapon skills. The former is triggered by successful parries and some effects can heal you, cause a massive explosion, or slow down time to get those extra hits.
The latter, meanwhile, can be a little disappointing due to Mortal Shell‘s low weapon variety. There are only four weapons in the game — a short sword, a two-handed sword, a hammer and chisel combo, and a mace. Fortunately, each weapon does have a couple of unique abilities that can be unleashed when you’ve got enough resolve.
The fifth weapon, if you can count it as such, is called the Ballistazooka. It’s like an extra ranged attack where your character fires a high-powered shot, although ammo is scarce. Still, it’s a fun tool to use.
The bosses and secrets of Mortal Shell
Mortal Shell wouldn’t be a decent addition to the Souls-like subgenre if it didn’t have epic boss fights. Thankfully, it has several of these. A couple of minibosses guard pathways leading to shells/armors, while an optional boss is fought multiple times to obtain new weapons. Likewise, there’s the main boss for each of the game’s three areas as well as a fourth that leads you to a New Game+ playthrough.
The boss fights themselves are spectacular to behold given the locations, and certain boss abilities are a joy to watch (and die from). My only gripe is that some attack patterns are quite easy to predict and telegraph. In relation to that and given the slightly slower combat in Mortal Shell (compared to Soulsborne titles), the encounters can be cheesed and cheapened with enough practice.
Apart from bosses, Mortal Shell also has secrets in the form of “stone statue chests” and the “fog.” These statues are scattered all over the game’s first area, Fallgrim (no relation to the traitor Primarch). The chests are initially locked, but you can obtain rewards when you activate the fog mechanic.
The fog mechanic also significantly makes navigating the area more difficult. Various enemy types have spawned, including deadlier and elite variants. This even coincides with “run like hell” moments when you’d think you’re safe only for creepy, Gollum-like creatures to suddenly pounce on you.
In any case, there are a few misgivings. Firstly, there’s the grind and unnecessary padding. The regular currency in Mortal Shell is “tar” (short for nectar). However, there’s also an additional currency called “glimpses.” These are rare drops from enemies and it takes a while to farm them.
Worse, the glimpses you’ve obtained aren’t shared across all the shells you’ve found — they’re exclusive to the shell you’re using when you picked them up. So, if you want to level-up a different shell, you’ll need to grind once more or purchase another one of Sester Genessa’s items which happens to cost glimpses too. The whole idea feels contrived, existing only to extend your playtime.
Speaking of items, Mortal Shell takes cryptic and barebones information to a whole new level. You have no clue what an item does until you use it, so it’s possible to waste something that might’ve been helpful down the road. At the very least, there’s a concept called “familiarity” that boosts the effects of items the more you use them. Then again, there’s absolutely no need to add mystery to regular loot, to begin with.
Gimme a “shell yeah!”
Despite these shortcomings, I still found Mortal Shell to be a stellar offering. After the disappointment I experienced with Hellpoint recently, I was wary of trying another Souls-like game so soon. Thankfully, my worries were unfounded since Mortal Shell managed to exceed all expectations.
Even better, as noted in our technical review, the game has exceptional performance — I was averaging 75+ FPS using 4K UHD resolution and the “ultra” graphics preset. With breathtaking landscapes, a flurry of special effects, and refreshing combat mechanics, the action is flashy, stylish, and flows smoother than butter.
The controls are very responsive, the attacks are weighty, and the audio is superb what with an audible crunch when your swings and smashes connect. Enemies are tossed away when you fling them with a mace, they’re staggered when you land vicious combos, and they stumble in fear when one of their comrades dies. The ebb and flow of combat is nothing short of engaging. Everything just feels right.
I mentioned that Mortal Shell already hooked me within the first hour, and things remained that way until I reached New Game+ roughly 12 hours later (due to a bit of grinding on the side too). It’s not a lengthy game, mind you, but you’re bound to enjoy every minute of it. You can pick it up once it releases tomorrow, August 18, via the Epic Games Store.